How Spain Turned to Música Urbana in the 2010s

   By Pierre Lestruhaut | Nov 5th, 2019

    Artwork by Alonso Ayala (@ouchal)

In a move that would certainly end up causing the anger of the old (likely misguided) guard of 2000s indie rock fans, the 2019 Primavera Sound lineup was headlined by international reggaetón staple J Balvin, a stage was fully curated by Spanish trap pioneer Yung Beef, and a good chunk of the local acts were heavy on the (for lack of a better term) música urbana side of the musical spectrum. The message was clear: perreo has triumphed in la Madre Patria. But years before that, even when Primavera lineups were still heavy on Anglo guitar-driven rock and British electronic musicians, notable changes were starting to emerge in the artistic output coming from Spain.

As a music publication, Club Fonograma didn’t start to notice that there was such a thing as trap music made in España until Granadan trapero Yung Beef, and his crew PXXR GVNG (now called LOS SANTOS), started getting coverage from Latin American music blogs. Despite Yung Beef being widely seen as the face of Spanish trap back then, he’s also forayed into reggaetón with band La Mafia del Amor, something that has certainly added to the fact that trap and reggaetón have been bundled together scene-wise in Spain. Although most of Yung Beef’s output has not tried to distinguish itself from American trap’s main thematic or sonic trends, his heavy Andalusian accent has left its imprints on the rhyming style of Spanish trap, to the point that traperos from other regions will often sound a little Andalusian when rhyming.

Another equally popular (but less street cred-worthy) Spanish trap personality is C. Tangana, a Madrid rapper who initially caught our attention as part of rap collective Agorazein. With lyrical output often centered around habitual trap themes like flex culture or making money, he’s also had top-notch Barcelona producer Alizzz making the beats for a lot of his bangers and has been very vocal about having Hova-like business-centric mentality. But the madrileño is also comfortable moving out of his comfort zone (as testified by his salsa keyboard infused pop hit “Mala Mujer,” or his collaborations with flamenco artists Rosalía and Niño de Elche), and has repeatedly given high praise to older Latino reggaetón stars (“Dios bendiga al reggaetón, Dios bendiga a Daddy”).

But even if trap has felt like Spain’s main música urbana export, it’s clear that reggaetón has begun to supplant trap’s popularity in the country. A few months ago, El Mundo ran an article chronicling the evolution of trap and reggaetón’s popularity in Spain. There’s a brief mention to the function that the 2008 financial crisis could have played in the popularity of reggaetón, and with that, the implication that increased unemployment and leisure leads to higher consumption and creation of frivolous music among young people. But said observations are more in line with patronizing YouTube comments discrediting reggaetón as lowbrow music that’s only enjoyed by the uneducated youth.

The piece does a better job at analyzing the more robust role that immigrants have played in the explosion of trap and reggaetón. Although the article is more interested in reggaetón as a genre invading Spanish urban nightlife than as one invading Spanish music, neoperreo as a movement is discussed, name-dropping its Argentina-born, Spain-based star Ms Nina. Alongside other musicians not based in Spain but who also emigrated from South America (Tomasa del Real, Talisto), she has embraced the neoperreo tag proudly, both operating in a DIY manner outside of the mainstream and major labels, but also infusing reggaetón with edgier production, brasher lyrical themes, and a much-needed sex-positive female energy.

But one of the most surprising Spanish musicians to have found recent international success, is one that has operated outside of trap and reggaetón. Starting out in Catalan beach town Vilassar de Mar before moving to Barcelona, dancehall musician Bad Gyal initially found an audience via her own version of Rihanna’s “Work.” Singing over dancehall riddims with a thick Spanish accent, it’s hard not to chuckle somewhat at the result of dancehall performed with tacky Spanish accent instead of the smooth Jamaican one we’re used to. But she’s received her good share of journalistic praise – with features in Pitchfork and The Fader – and renowned artists have collaborated with her, as testified by having her videos directed by CANADA, and her tracks produced by the likes of Dubbel Dutch and El Guincho.

Of course, there’s also the complicated matter as to where this all fits in the cultural appreciation vs. cultural appropriation debate (some of these artists have been accused of the latter). It’s certainly not the purpose of a 1000-word internet think piece on a defunct music blog to enter the realm of such heated debates, and other media outlets have already opened this discussion successfully, most notably, Eduardo Cepeda’s review of reggaetón's black roots in Remezcla, and Manuel Carrasco’s more recent similar take on the whitening of black music in general published in Vice (in Spanish). But it’s worth mentioning that all the artists mentioned here have, at some point, shown acute awareness and recognition towards the roots of the music that they’re playing. It may not solve the underlying issues involved, but it’s a start.

There remains another not-so-optimistic view regarding the explosion of música urbana in Spain (and global pop in general), one related to the feeling that we’re moving towards a uniformization of the sound of mainstream Spanish-language music. Take, for example, Rosalía, the much hyped new star of Spanish pop. Starting her career in the flamenco circuit performing in tablaos, her enormously praised second album El Mal Querer (2018) went decidedly towards what many have described as a modernization of flamenco via the aesthetics and production techniques of present day hip-hop and electronica (mainly trap). But in less than a year, her 2019 singles (collaborating with J Balvin and Ozuna) have mainly abandoned flamenco and veered decidedly towards global pop and reggaetón sounds, causing both surprise and mixed feelings from fans and critics.

The combination of major label capital and streaming platform algorithms is the easy-to-identify culprit behind the perceived lack of variety. But despite this, the boom that música urbana has had among Spanish music is generally seen as a positive phenomenon that speaks volumes about a group of artists that’s open-minded, adventurous and unprejudiced. When looking at interviews with the people who have tended to gravitate towards scenes like neoperreo, “unprejudiced” is a word that is very often uttered when describing themselves. This suggests not only the progressiveness of the people that make up the scene, but also that prejudices still exist among the audiences that reject música urbana.

The generational component behind said prejudices is here the most obvious one, and the decades old analysis that has been done regarding older generations rejecting rock in the 1960s, or hip-hop in the 1980s, points out to the very cyclical nature behind the phenomenon of differences in taste between generations. Which is why there are reasons to feel optimistic. There’s the sensation that youth culture’s ability to get rid of old prejudices and constantly seek for novelty will keep things moving. Because it’s precisely that need for novelty that gave us the idiosyncratic array of artists that defined late 2010s música urbana in Spain, one that succeeded at exploring musical territories that, a few years ago, were neither hip nor fashionable.

Pierre Lestruhaut is a Club Fonograma contributor based in San José, Costa Rica. You can find him on Twitter @pedrito_les.